My Top Ten “Creature Features!”

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Just for fun, a couple of years ago I posted a list of my “Top Ten Spook Movies.” Ever since it went up it has been among my most viewed posts and consistently one with the longest legs (it still continues to get many views, especially this time of year). So I thought this Halloween I would follow it up with a list of my favorite “Creature Features.”

First the disclaimers: I admit I cheated here in my rankings, deciding to rank the monsters themselves instead of the movies, that way I could get more films on the list before naming my favorite of each type. The majority of the creatures listed here are the staples of the 1930s and 40s iconic monster movies from Universal Pictures, but the others are no less famous. To me, monsters require the viewer to suspend their disbelief even more so than with ghosts, so creature films always seem to blend more easily with comedy (especially the zombies). Thus one might feel I have tainted the list with too many films that play for laughs. So be it.

Further, and related to that, you won’t find brilliant movies such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Alien, or Aliens on this list, because those films are operating on a much higher level than are the more campy and fun films I consider to be “creature features.”

Lastly, while I like my ghost movies with few special effects, relying more on the right combo of story, characters, camera angles and lighting, creature features by nature have to be more reliant on special effects. Yet, I am not a big fan of either gore or over-the-top computer generated imagery (CGI), so you’ll find my list is made up of classic films with good old-fashioned special effects and still often reliant on using the viewer’s own mind to create the chills and thrills.

So, without further adieu, here are my “Top Ten Creature Features,” all in carefully considered descending order and from the perspective of an historian and a film history buff.

10. The Mummy. The original 1932 film from Universal starring Boris Karloff was inspired by the 1922 opening of King Tut’s tomb and the alleged curse that killed ten of the crypt’s invaders within ten years.

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Karloff

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself helped to promote the curse’s supposed legitimacy). The scene in which a long dead Egyptian high priest very slowly returns to life, leaving a witness laughing in hysterical fear, is still pretty chilling.

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Go ahead and hate my choice, but there are far worse things than watching these two good-looking people raid Egyptian tombs.

But at the sake of sounding sacrilegious to true film buffs, I have to admit that my favorite mummy film is 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Yep, I said it. True, it is more action/adventure than it is “creature feature,” the mummy ironically has way less charisma than Karloff’s understated version, the comedic elements are strained, and the film is very overloaded with bad 1990’s CGI.  As Roger Ebert noted, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” What I can say in its favor, however, is that the two leads are perfectly and charmingly matched,  the opening scene, which establishes the legendary curse, is near brilliant, and the climactic scene when the high priest’s soul is taken away for eternal damnation, is still bone-chillingly cool.

9. The Invisible Man. There is only one way to go here, and that is with the original 1933 Universal version based fairly closely on the H.G Wells novel and directed by the legendary James Whales.

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Claude Rains

Claude Rains is one of the greatest character actors that ever blessed a Hollywood sound stage, and he puts on a performance here (in his first American film) that carries the whole thing, although you literally never see his face until the very last moments! This one is played for some laughs (“here we go gathering the nuts in May!”), but there are some real chills as the mad scientist descends into sheer lunacy, and the special effects are still pretty amazing considering the limitations of the 1930s.

8. The Wolf Man. OK, if you don’t think Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is one of the hippest songs ever written (and is there a better opening line?) I do not know how to relate to you.

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Chaney Jr.

The Lon Chaney the song references is of course the legendary “man of a thousand faces” that brought to life so many scary characters in the films of the 1920s and 30s, such as 1925’s Phantom of the Opera (which would have been #11 had this list been longer) and Quasimodo from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Lon Chaney Jr. the song also references is of course the son of the great actor who went on to a good career of his own in horror films, most famously 1941’s The Wolf Man (which also starred Claude Rains). It is a solid film, tapping into a folklore that is actually centuries old and with a history not unlike that of witchcraft, and features some of the horror genre’s best fog-infested atmospheric scenes (and yes, “his hair was perfect”). It is weakened however by Chaney’s poor acting (I hate to say that). image.jpgBut I have to admit I like my wolf man in more comedic settings, such as the 1980s classic, Teen Wolf, starring Michael J. Fox (Yep. Listen, if those basketball scenes do not crack you up, I don’t know what to say about your sense of humor), and Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (with Corey Haim and Gary Busey, I mean come, on, what an 80s combo!) As Roger Ebert noted, Silver Bullet “is either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest.”) But I especially love John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981), my vote for the best of the wolf man movies. The film is just the right mix of humor (yes, that’s the dude from the old Dr. Pepper commercials) and very real horror. The special effects in the transformation scenes are still pretty amazing. There’s no way any CGI has ever topped it. “Huh! Draw blood.”

7. The Thing. Here’s one of only two aliens to make my list, both of which are products of the early Cold War and how things coming from out of the sky to destroy us were oft used film metaphors for our fear of Soviet bombs and/or commie spies within our midst. That trope led to many comically bad 1950s sci-fi movies, and some that are actually pretty good. Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World (1951) is one of the best, involving a crashed saucer, an alien recovered from the ship, and the threat it poses to Air Force crewman in an isolated artic base. (Yes, that is Gunsmoke’s James Arness as The Thing, but you can’t tell it).

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Confronting The Thing

James Carpenter remade the film in 1982, and it isn’t bad and actually closer to the original story because the creature can assume the characteristics of other living things around it. But it depends too much on special effects and “gotcha!” jump scares. The original is much more akin to a good ghost movie, because it is dependent on characters, lighting, and mood created by effective cinematography. (The scene where they figure out the shape of the crashed ship is awesome, especially if you get the chance to see it on a big screen). And don’t forget the film’s final warning: “Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”

6. The Living Dead. Ah, zombies. I must admit, I get a kick out zombie films, and that started one night in the mid 1980s when I stayed up extra late one Halloween night and caught a TV airing of the 1968 George Romero cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. Based loosely on the 1954 novel, I am Legend, the film forever changed the depiction of zombies in film.8d5f6f9e86527ee3c802c49380696179--white-zombie-grindhouse.jpg Audiences had long been exposed to reanimated corpses, 1932’s White Zombie featuring Bela Lugosi for instance, a truly creepy and disturbing film set in Haiti. Or especially the Val Lewton classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). (See them both. Trust me. Lewton’s films in particular are masterpieces in the use of shadows and sound to create chilling atmospherics). In such films zombies were definitely creepy, but they were essentially catatonic, tied to voodoo practices, controlled by a master, and in the case of the Lewton film, basically harmless.night-of-the-living-dead-at-50.jpg In Romero’s hands, however, they became flesh-eating ghouls that can’t be overcome because of their sheer numbers and relentlessness. Yes, you can take them out by destroying the head, but there are always more. And more. And more. I still think they work best in comedies (with the exception of the first few seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead—man, what has happened to that once great show?), such as Zombieland (2009), the recent The Dead Don’t Die (2019), and by far the best of the comedies, Shaun of the Dead (2004). But in the end, my favorite is still Night of The Living Dead, which was confirmed when I got to see it on the big screen last Halloween. You can’t beat its slow burn beginnings (“they’re coming to get you, Barbara”) and the shocking ending that broke the rules of how horror movies are supposed to end. And come on, it features the best-delivered line of any creature feature movie:

And now on to the Top Five!

5. The Blob. Here’s the other alien to make the list, and this one is way more campy and fun, and yet even creepier. A very young Steve McQueen makes his film debut (as Steven McQueen) alongside the actress that played Helen Crump in The Andy Griffith Show, Aneta Corsaut, in 1958’s The Blob. The two are a couple of middle class teens in suburban 1950s America, suffering from all the same angst as the teens in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause (judgmental cops, WWII-generation parents and adults that can’t relate to or trust the troubled youth), except in this film the event that finally unites the dividedmaxresdefault (1).jpg generations is not the tragic shooting of one teen, it’s a gelatinous blob from outer space that devours townspeople one-by-one, growing ever larger with each victim it consumes. Awesome. There’s some truly iconic scenes in this film (do yourself a favor and skip the 1988 remake), especially involving the movie theater, and it was filmed in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (yes, that Valley Forge) in deeply rich and beautiful colors (looks great on Blu-Ray). It’s a ton of campy fun, with the Burt Bacharach title song, “Beware of the Blob,” setting the perfect stage. And remember, we are only safe “as long as the Arctic stays cold.”

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Starting in 1908, there have been many movie and TV adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 critique of Victorian era hypocrisy and his examination of humankind’s duality. In many ways, the work is classic Freudian theory, but has made for some darn good horror. The most recognized version is the 1941 film starring Spencer Tracy, but trust me, the best is the 1931 version starring Fredric March. dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde-re-release-poster.jpgIt’s a pre-code film, when Hollywood was able to get away with things that self-censorship wouldn’t allow in 1941. At its heart, this story is about sexual lust, and the 1931 version can tap into that way more openly than can the 1941 film. But that’s not the only thing that makes it better; the techniques and lighting used to achieve the transformation scenes are downright creepy and amazing, all the more so because of how subtle and yet still stunning they are. You’ll be hard-pressed to figure out how they did it, and it is way more convincing than any CGI could be. Further, while Tracy was an amazing actor, Frederic March’s performance in the role is far superior. The film captures you right away, with opening shots that are filmed to put the audience into Dr. Jekyll’s point-of view. It’ll mesmerize you within just the first few minutes of the film. It’s no wonder than when the 1941 version came out the studio tried to round up and destroy prints of the 1931 version. Thank goodness that attempt failed.

And now the Top Three!

3. King Kong. All hail the mighty Kong. I have a soft spot for the King because he was one of the first things that drew me to classic movies when I was a young kid. I was probably only 8 or maybe 10 years old when I first saw him airing on TV, and I was so transfixed that I went to my school library to find a book on how he was brought to life. Luckily, I found one (and the film section that I revisited many times) and learned about filmmaker Merian C. Cooper’s lifetime obsession with gorillas and the dangers and wonders of filming in the jungle. Released in 1933, King Kong follows a fictional director and his crew (based on Cooper and his cohorts themselves) famous for making the type of jungle documentaries that audiences at the time were used to actually seeing in theaters. What they find on the long lost Skull Island is well known, so it needs no explanation from me here.3b28f65b7646fff3-600x338.jpg For me, the scene in which the native villagers (depicted in ways reflecting the repugnant racist stereotypes of the era) offer up a sacrifice to Kong, is the film’s most chilling moment (it’s use of sound is mesmerizing), more so than even Kong’s fights with other animals and his New York rampage. There have of course been remakes, in 1976, 2005, and 2017, for instance, with Peter Jackson’s 2005 version being the best of those subsequent films. Yet, as good as that movie admittedly was, I didn’t like how Ann Darrow stopped fearing Kong and connected with him, and I feel the CGI takes away the dreamlike quality that the original achieved because of its primitive yet highly effective special effects. The stop-motion animation, gorgeous matte paintings, and rear projection techniques give the film a surreal quality that I think is still fascinating to look upon, especially during his fight with the tyrannosaurus and when he surveys his kingdom from atop his mountain top. As Roger Ebert wrote about the dinosaur fight scene, “there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.” Damn right. When I want to see the King, I go to the original.

2. Frankenstein’s Monster (and his bride). Ok, you all know that Frankenstein isn’t the monster, he’s the doctor. The original story was conceived by Mary Shelley on a dark, cold night when she and her travel companions sat around a gothic fireplace and challenged each other to come up with the best horror story. Her gruesome tale of a doctor that tries to reanimate corpses via electricity/galvanism, only to create a destructive monster, was published in 1818 (she was 21 at the time) and is a classic that reads as a Romantic-era critique of the Industrial Revolution. There have been a large number of adaptations and derivatives of the story, but in my mind you need only deal with four of them. The starting point is of course the 1931 Universal pictures production, Frankensteinwith Boris Karloff as the monster.

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Karloff

It’s brilliant in creating atmospheric mood, particularly in the grave robbing scene and the gorgeous reanimation sequences. And yet it was bested four years later by James Whales’s masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein. One of my favorite character actors of all time is Elsa Lanchester (she was always perfect in quirky or downright strange roles), and she does double duty in the film, playing both Mary Shelley in an interesting prologue, and the bride in the film’s finale.

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The enchanting Lanchester, as the Bride

But she’s only in the film a mere matter of minutes, as the real stars of the show are Karloff and Colin Clive (as the doctor), the special effects, and most especially, the set/art designers. Forget all the high brow film critiques that have dissected the film from just about every angle looking for hidden imagery and subtext, and just enjoy it for what it is; a great creature feature. (Dr. Praetorious is way creepier than the monster). After that, you’ll need to catch 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. It’s a major step down in quality, but not bad. Yet the real reason to see it is so that you can fully appreciate my choice for the best Frankenstein movie: Mel Brooks’ 1974, Young Frankenstein. The brilliant comedy aside, the film is equal parts spoof and loving homage to the three other films noted here, and really, all of the 1930s Universal monster flicks. A little while ago, my friends and I were discussing what comedy movies we consider to be cinematic masterpieces, and this was my top choice. young-frankenstein.jpgNot only is it funny, but Brooks hits every right film-making note on what made the Universal monster movies so good, from lighting, to set design (many of the machines are the actual ones from the original films), to the use of sound and shadows to create the perfect atmosphere. It’s funny because it gets everything so darn right (and wow, what a great cast). Do yourself a favor and watch all four of these films as a marathon (none of them is very long), and then don’t forget to “PUT. ZE CANDLE. BACK.”

And at number one:

1. Dracula (and his various vampire brethren). Could there ever be any doubt who would be #1? His origins go way further back than any other creature, with precursors in one form or another in most ancient cultures. The most immediate vampire folklore dates to the early 18th century, however. Dracula himself did not emerge until Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, setting most of our current traditions about vampires, their strengths, and their weaknesses. He hit the stage that same year, and then found his way to movie screens by 1921.

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Schreck as “Orlock”

The first real starting place, of course, is 1922’s unauthorized film adaptation, F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist silent film Nosferatufeaturing Max Schreck as Count Orlock. It is a super strange film that will give you the willies, all the more so because of its surreal settings, darkened edges, and jerky shutter speeds. As Ebert notes, “Its eerie power only increases with age. Watching it, we don’t think about screenplays or special effects. We think: This movie believes in vampires.” Then of course there is the film that Tod Browning directed for Universal, 1931’s Dracula, featuring Bela Lugosi in his career-defining role and the film that kicked off Universal’s decade of horror film dominance.

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Lugosi as Count Dracula

As perfect as Lugosi is in the film (a role he played on stage even though at the time he could barely speak English), to me the unsung heroes are actors Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye (who were also in the Frankenstein films) as Van Helsing and Renfield. (Lugosi and Sloan’s standoff scene, as Dracula comes ever-so-close to getting Van Helsing under his spell, is my favorite moment). Lugosi played Dracula many other times, of course, but don’t fail to catch him in Mark of the Vampire (1935) where he plays another vampire. Anyone that gives away the film’s twist should be shot (or bitten), but this one stands out mostly for some super creepy use of sound, with a strange, unexplained low buzz/humming sound that will go right down your spine every time you hear it.

The 1931 blockbuster Dracula was just the beginning of the Count’s never-ending life in films, and there are many that I like, most especially The Horror of Dracula (1958) from the UK’s Hammer Films and featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing (LOVE that ending). I even really enjoy the much-maligned Francis Ford Coppola film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with its scene of the undead Lucy returning to her tomb (after a night of gorging on babies) sticking with me in my subsequent nightmares. (I’ll probably see her again tonight after thinking about it).

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Lucy’s return in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I also enjoy more campy vampire films such as Roman Polanski’s 1967 The Fearless Vampire Killers (all the creepier because it features Sharon Tate only two years before her brutal murder), as well as 1980s classics Fright Night and especially The Lost Boys (wow, Corey Haim made this essay twice). Young Kiefer Sutherland was a sinister vampire in Lost Boys, and I love how effectively they used music from The Doors and Jim Morrison’s image.

But listen up, I am about to give you the best advice from this entire essay (consider it your reward for sticking with me this long). One night, set yourself down to watch Nosferatu and then follow it up immediately with Shadow of the Vampire (2001). Never heard of it? It stars John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and Cary Elwes in a film with an incredible premise. It tells the story of the making of Nosferatu, with the brilliant premise that Max Schreck was so good playing a vampire because he actually was a vampire.

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Dafoe, playing Schreck, playing Orlock

The two films fit together so well that you’ll easily convince yourself that you’re watching a documentary about Nosferatu’s filming, with the impact of making both films stay with you for a long time afterwards. Just trust me on this one.

And so there you have it! My Top Ten “Creature Features!” All of these films are readily available and streaming on many services, from Netflix, to Prime, to Vudu, all with very reasonable rental rates or even sometimes free (Vudu has Nosferatu for a 2.99, and Shadow of the Vampire for free. You can thank me later). You’ve probably already seen most of these, but see them again and make a great Halloween night of it!

And remember,  “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”

Glory is back on the big screen (2 days only)! Glory Hallelujah!

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So today (July 21st, 2019) Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies are screening the movie Glory on the big screen once again in celebration of its 30th anniversary.  It will also play again on Wednesday, July 24th. Check at the Fathom Events website to see where it is playing in your town so that you don’t miss the chance to see this fantastic movie once again up on the big screen, especially if you didn’t catch it way back in 1989. EVERY movie is better on the big screen.

I have a special connection to this film, as in many ways it changed my life and set my career trajectory. Back in 2015, Christian McWhirter (historian at the Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum) asked me to write an essay about the movie for his website, Civil War Pop. I eagerly agreed, arguing that the movie was the best Civil War movie yet to be made.

I think it still is. Here’s the review I wrote in 2015 (with some slight edits):

Seeing Glory was a watershed event in my life and my career is largely a result of it. I bet I’m not the only one.

Growing up in Alabama, Confederate iconography surrounded me. Yet despite my love of history I was not especially drawn to the Civil War. I saw much of Roots (1977)MV5BNTg1Yjk5OGQtMDI1Yy00NjFiLTkwZjctNTMwM2ExNDg4NDhjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA4NzY1MzY@-1._V1_UY268_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpg when it originally aired, but I was just a kid.  As a young teen, the miniseries The Blue and the Gray (1982) and North and South (1985) both sparked a bit of curiosity in the Civil War, but did not lead to a sustained interest. I watched Gone with the Wind (1939) on VHS when I was in high school and loved it, but mostly because I fell in love with Vivian Leigh (I still am).

I understood the South’s desire to maintain slavery caused the Civil War. (Yes, it is possible to have learned that even in an Alabama public school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Still, that meant little to me. Despite my exposure to Roots, I reflected little on the injustice and evils of slavery. What little interest I had in the Civil War involved the South’s valiant struggle against great odds, my Confederate ancestors, and the heroic example of Robert E. Lee.

But Glory changed all that.

In 1985 (around the time I fell in love with Vivian and Patrick Swayze was breaking hearts in North and South), acclaimed producer Freddie Fields and screenwriter Kevin Jarre were on business in Boston. Shaw-Memorial.jpgThe story goes that they stumbled upon the magnificent Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze relief monument that was dedicated in 1897 on the Boston Commons to honor Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first regiment of black troops raised from a northern state. Its stunning depiction of the regiment marching off to war captivated the two men, and both expressed surprise that blacks had fought in the Civil War.

We can forgive their reaction. This was a time when popular culture had long-since forgotten black Union soldiers. Perhaps the most indelible images many had of African Americans in the Civil War at all were the slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind. Despite the war’s liberation possibilities, Mammy, Pork, and Prissy loyally serve Scarlett, and Big Sam is shown going off with other slaves to dig Confederate fortifications, promising to stop the Yankees.

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Gone with the Wind’s “loyal slaves”

These scenes engrained the Lost Cause depiction of “faithful” wartime slaves into America’s collective memory. Thus, Jarre and Fields were hardly alone in their ignorance as they viewed the monument.

Besides the stunning sculpture, Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece includes a long inscription providing a broad overview of Shaw and the regiment’s sacrifices, obstacles, and legacy. If you’ve seen it, you know that it is practically an outline of what became Glory. Jarre and Fields immediately saw the potential for a great film from a largely unknown story.

Others were involved in getting the film made. One was Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, who’d written a book on the monument and grown up knowing members of Shaw’s family.  Kirstein’s work was heavily indebted to Peter Burchard’s regimental history, One Gallant Rush (1965)Soon, Jarre, Fields, Kirstein, and Burchard collaborated. Jarre wrote the original screenplay, and Tri-Star Pictures (a new studio that pooled the resources of Columbia, CBS, and HBO) committed to the project.

The original script focused largely on depicting a transformation in Shaw. Early scenes painted him as indifferent to abolitionism despite being the son of prominent and wealthy abolitionists. (This is only slightly inaccurate.

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The real Robert G. Shaw

As a young and handsome man, Shaw had many other interests besides abolitionism, and thus he came across as indifferent in comparison to his parents.) Providing more background on Shaw, the script featured a ridiculous encounter with John Brown in which the zealot castigated him for his lack of abolitionist fervor. Thankfully, Peter Burchard convinced Jarre to dump such scenes, focusing a bit less on Shaw.

The result fit the formula of most war films (meet the soldiers, see them bond through training, watch them fight), complete with a stereotypically diverse group of comrades played by such gifted actors as Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher. Besides Shaw, the men are composite characters, which is frustrating since the regiment contained individuals who’s lives Jarre could’ve easily researched: Frederick Douglass’s two sons and Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney, for example.

It’s also typical in that although largely an African-American story, it places a white hero (Matthew Broderick’s Shaw) at the center, which sadly was standard practice for Hollywood’s historical epics until recent movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave. Yet if not for Burchard’s script intervention, it could have been worse. Further, without the Shaw focus, in the 1980s it would have been near impossible to find a major studio to produce the film. It is also undeniable that Shaw’s leadership was important to the regiment’s success.

The film’s biggest inaccuracy is that it depicts the regiment as comprised mostly of fugitive slaves, while in truth 80% of the men were northern free blacks.morganfreemanglory.jpg Yet this too is pardonable, because the film tells a larger story than just that of the 54th. It is about all African American men that served in the United States army during the Civil War, a large percentage of which had fled from slavery.

Another distortion is the whipping scene. While it’s true that Shaw insisted on strict discipline and meted out harsh punishments, the character Trip’s AWOL expedition to find shoes would not have involved flogging—a punishment that was outlawed by that time.

However, the scene is one of the film’s best punches, teaching an important historical lesson. Trip (Denzel Washington) has his back exposed, revealing horrific scars indicating a lifetime of resistance to master control, and yet also reminding audiences of slavery’s brutality. He then haughtily flips off his shirt, eyes Shaw and spits defiantly, and manfully readies himself for the blows. As the lashes are laid on, director Edward Zwick’s camera slowly zooms on Trip’s face and we watch in agony as he remains defiant even as each stroke takes an increasingly painful toil. Glory1.jpg When this hardened and resistant man finally breaks, it’s in the form of a quivering face and a tear sliding down his cheek.  The whole scene conveys more about slave resistance than we’ve seen even in more recent films. (It’s also one of the most brilliant scenes by an actor using only his face, and I believe it alone won Washington his first Oscar).

There are several other forgivable inaccuracies, but as a whole the film is solid history.  It becomes clear that at a time when few whites believed that blacks could be effective soldiers, Shaw was intent on proving them wrong by taking the 54th’s training seriously. Glory accurately reveals that if captured, the soldiers risked enslavement, and the officers risked a death sentence, yet they heroically remained committed. As seen in the movie, Shaw was impressed by how quickly and readily the men learned, and his respect for them grew accordingly. The film reveals the racism the men encountered from white northern soldiers and a Congress that denied them full pay. Yet, many white soldiers’ opinions about black soldiers evolved during the war, a dynamic captured well in one particularly moving scene near the end of the film.

It’s here in the third act that Glory is the most impressive, as the men are finally allowed in combat. The night before their largest battle, we watch the men in a religious gathering, and it’s a moving and particularly accurate depiction of slave “shout” songs and worship. It is also true that Shaw sensed his impending death, and yet was focused on what his regiment’s actions could accomplish for the reputation of black soldiers and their race. glory-clip.pngThe final battle scene is stunning and largely true to eyewitness accounts of the attack on Fort Wagner, including Shaw’s last moments.

I was unaware of all these accuracies when I saw it as a college student in 1989, I was just engrossed in a great movie that hooked me immediately with its realistic depiction of Antietam. Yet as I sat in the theater, something slowly changed in me. I recall fighting my own tears during the whipping scene and thinking “there was something bigger going on in that war than the heroics of Lee’s army.” My heart soared when Morgan Freeman announced proudly, “we runaway slaves, but we come back fighting men!”

I still can’t watch the movie without getting emotional during the religious shout when Trip says, “We men, ain’t we? We men.” For me, this is the climax of Glory, and what the whole damn thing is about: men fighting against slavery, racism, and a culture (both North and South) that insisted they were less than human, fit only for manual labor, and not deserving of citizenship. No, they demonstrated by their actions, they were men, willing to “go down, standing up” against their oppressors. It’s powerful stuff.

The gut-wrenchingly realistic and beautifully filmed final battle is more the movie’s coda than its climax. Yet it caused the moment when I knew that my perception of the Civil War had been forever altered. When the rebel flag came up over Fort Wagner indicating that the northern attack had failed, I palpably felt my heart sink in pain. From that moment, my attitude about the Confederacy changed. The good guys had not won that day.

After seeing the film, the Civil War became my passion. I devoured the works of Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Bruce Catton, but was always drawn back to the African-American perspective of the war as a fight for freedom and citizenship rights. Soon after, I became a ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park, working on the battlefields of the Peninsula Campaign. 519A7jBXE9L-1._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis experience, combined with my interest in black participation in the war, led to a graduate school seminar paper, a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, and ultimately my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (which I am proud to say won the Wiley Silver Award–now if I could just get a filmmaker interested in it).

But I’m not alone. Due in part to the fact that Glory sparked popular interest in African-American soldiers, scholars have dug deep in the archives and explored many angles of the black Civil War experience, black reenactors have multiplied and educated the public, monuments have been dedicated, and there is now an African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in DC.footer-gate-img-302x195.jpg Few today would be surprised to discover that African Americans were in the Civil War. We’ve become generally aware that freedom was not bestowed on blacks, they fought and died for it.

There are other historians with similar stories as mine, and it’s testament to the power of popular and pubic history. A monument inspired the filmmakers, and their resulting movie caused a shift in historiography (few can make such a claim). Hollywood often gets history wrong, and this film has significant flaws. But Glory inspired a generation of historians, got us asking different questions, and thus is still the best Civil War movie ever made.

Additional Dispatches:

* The film depicts Shaw’s acceptance of command of the 54th as a quick decision with only slight hesitance. In fact, he originally turned down the offer, but changed his mind after weeks of reflection.

* Completely missing is that just before going off to war with the 54th, Shaw quickly married his fiancée despite his mother’s objections. He did so largely because he felt that given the risk of what would happen to him if captured, he would not survive the war.

* Frederick Douglass is depicted in a very brief moment near the start of the film in a scene that does little justice to the role he played in the recruitment of the 54th and the sacrifice he made in sending his two sons off to war in the regiment.

* The movie’s characterization of Colonel James Montgomery is a bit unfair, but the scene of his burning of Darien, Georgia, is accurate, including his sadistic promise to eliminate secessionists “like the Jews of old.” The line is as recorded in Shaw’s personal letters.

* Medal of Honor winner William H. Carney won the award for his gallantry in bringing the American flag back from the doomed attack on Wagner.  As noted, he’s not a character in the film, but during the thick of the battle scene, there is a quick shot of a soldier standing defiantly on the fort’s wall waving the flag. I like to think it’s Carney.

* The film shows a group of reporters gathered on a knoll to get the “best seat in the house” to view the attack on Wagner. This is accurate, and it’s clear the filmmakers used much of the reporters’ eyewitness details in staging the battle scene, making it all the more meaningful when Shaw tells one of them, “if I should fall, remember what you see here.”

* A fair criticism of the film is that it appears that the entire 54th was destroyed at Wagner. In truth, they continued their service until the end of the war, winning more fame at the Battle of Olustee.

* Does it mention slavery? Obviously so. As indicated above, the whipping scene says much about the institution’s brutality and slave resistance, and the religious shout meeting is highly accurate and reveals much about slave survival tactics.

I Taught a Class on Lincoln, Here’s What He Taught Me

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For years, University of Alabama Associate Professor Lawrence F. Kohl (author of the brilliant and historiographically important The Politics of Individualism)  taught a popular class on the life of Abraham Lincoln as an intense, three week, upper level undergrad course every May. When he retired, one of his former students, Rachel K. Deale, took it over for one summer before becoming an Assistant Professor at Barton College. When she left, I was determined to keep the unique class going.

Turns out it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20+ years of college teaching. It rejuvenated me.

I’ve always loved my job and wake up every morning excited to get to do it (yes, I know I’m lucky). But this course was special. Like Dr. Deale, I chose to teach it as a full monthScreen Shot 2019-07-17 at 3.09.24 PM.png course in June, meeting for one hour and 45 minutes every day of the week. That made for a busy month, but an extremely fun one hanging out with Abe and the students (mostly history majors).

The prep work for any course you’ve not taught before can be intense, but especially when it meets every day of the week. I wrote lectures and built image-heavy Powerpoints the night before delivering them, all while keeping up with the reading schedule assigned to my students and quizzing them on it.

I’m confident I taught the students many things about our 16th president and his era that they didn’t know and that will stay with them. Sticking mostly to Kohl’s tried-and-true course outline helped me craft lectures that I feel worked well and kept students engaged in classroom discussions, shedding light on Antebellum and Civil War America, as well as the ways Lincoln’s life prepared him for the role of our leader during America’s most divisive time.

I did alter and add to Kohl’s basic structure, including the role that public history sites, monuments, and movies have played in shaping how Americans have remembered and mythologized Lincoln. We also read about and discussed the differing ways Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and his White House secretaries (Nicolay and Hay) shaped the memory and historiography of Lincoln.

We also had “Lincoln in the News” assignments (a variation on an assignment I have in my survey courses), requiring students to find and analyze current news stories demonstrating how Abe’s legacy and myth are often used by modern politicians and pundits for both liberal and conservative agendas. We considered how and why the Lincoln myth causes politicians of all stripes to tie their ideologies to his. This allowed for a bit of memory history, but also a discussion of the dangers of “cherry picking” primary source evidence by both historians and others looking for a usable past.  (Ironically, Lincoln himself did this when tying his views against the expansion of slavery to the views of the Founders).

In short, although using a narrative approach to the course (each day I essentially told stories about his life), my students and I accomplished more than just learning basic facts about Lincoln. Besides history, we dealt with public history, memory, historiography, and how historians use and misuse primary sources —all within a narrative framework.  Abe himself would have appreciated the use of personal stories as a means of painlessly pulling my audience into considering more complex themes and concepts.

Thus one of the things the class taught me was the usefulness of a biography course. The students stayed engaged as we followed his narrative. Tracing the personal developments in his life, I asked students to consider how those things shaped his career, political beliefs, and perceptions of the events of his time. JKNCVgY.jpg

We all love the juicy and personal details of famous lives, but perhaps this is even more true for a generation that’s grown up watching reality TV. It seems my students’ fascination with Lincoln’s personal life helped keep them engaged as we drifted into those discussions of memory, public history, and historiography, and as they read and analyzed his own writings.

Of course these are the same reasons that biographical books are so effective as a lens for examining a particular historical era, but my experience teaching the Lincoln course convinces me that history departments should consider offering an array of biography courses. It might just be one way we can start attracting more students to upper level history classes, and thus to win back the number of  history majors the field has lost lately.

If you’re a professor or teacher, I encourage you to think about historical figures you’d love to teach a course on and then do it! I believe students might more eagerly sign up for a course on Joan of Arc than they would the 100 Years War, or one on Ronald Reagan more readily than a class on Post-WWII America. How about Elizabeth I instead of Tudor England? Frederick Douglass instead of Antebellum Slavery?

But Lincoln showed me much more than just the advantages of teaching history through biography.

When planning, I intended to focus on Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. For this reason I chose Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as my main text.51CRIqJBIcL.jpg On our first day I made clear that students should pay attention to Lincoln’s evolution in regards to slavery and race. By the end of the course, however, following this theme brought me to a realization I had not anticipated.

As we know, judged by the standards of our time Lincoln was racist. But historians often stress that from the perspective of his time he held fairly progressive ideas about African Americans and slavery, and those sentiments evolved over the course of his life, especially during the war. A man once holding views about racial inferiority that were fairly consistent with that of other whites of his time eventually became the first president to openly call for suffrage rights for at least some categories of African Americans (and it cost him his life) and perhaps would have eventually pushed for more than just that.

As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, Lincoln’s evolution was slow in the eyes of abolitionists and radical Republicans, but perhaps it was exactly the pace needed so that public opinion would grow to support emancipation and the 13th amendment. The war’s contingencies, and Lincoln’s responses to them, set and controlled that pace.

Using Foner and selected writings and speeches by Lincoln, I guided students thru Lincoln’s change and pace, showing how and why they happened. When discussing “cherry picking,” we noted how easily it is for people today with varying agendas to find Lincoln’s own words at different times in his life that they can use to “prove” differing points. 37f.png_large.png

Of course this is true with other historical figures, because people’s thoughts and opinions often change over time. That’s the nature of maturing and viewing the world through a larger lens of knowledge and experiences. This is just one reason that context is so important when using primary sources.

The first Lincoln writing we read was his 1832 announcement that he was running for state office. In it, Abe clearly delineates his Whig party political sentiments, but concludes by promising that if he were to one day “discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

A statement of open-mindedness like that is laudatory, and while over Lincoln’s life he clung to most of his core principles, he certainly proved willing to change his mind and evolve, not just in regards to his ideas about slavery and race, but also military strategy. I told my students I feel this was Lincoln’s true greatness; in an age when political partisanship ripped our nation apart, his willingness to change his views based on events, contingencies, and experiences is what saved the Union.

And yet, what struck me by the end of the course was that we often don’t allow our politicians to grow and evolve like that. How frequently do we criticize them for holding a position or beliefs years ago that seem at odds with their current ones or that are now contemptible? In an attempt at a “gotcha” moment, we criticize them for hypocrisy, or allege they only changed their mind out of political expediency. (Lincoln himself faced such criticisms).

Sadly, it seems to me, this plays at least some role in the partisanship preventing the compromise between parties that democracy requires. Why would a politician be swayed by debate or new realities if changing their mind or compromising their positions leads to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy by pundits and political rivals?

As a result, they don’t change their minds or obfuscate in an attempt to hide it when they do. They refuse to admit when they were wrong or refuse to compromise, and we get gridlock. Wouldn’t it be wiser to support politicians willing to renounce their opinions if they discover them to be erroneous, or allow them to evolve with the changing times? If we praise them for doing so, wouldn’t it actually encourage more open mindedness?

Yet in our current political environment it seems we only want politicians that unwaveringly stand firm to convictions, or that come out of the womb with fully formed values and beliefs that match with our current values and standards. Emancipation.jpg

Imagine if Lincoln had never changed his mind about slavery and race. He would have never used emancipation and black troops as a means of winning the war and would have continued to promote the colonization of African Americans outside the country. Had he not shifted on these positions, debatably he would have lost the war. Certainly he would have never promoted any form of black citizenship and would have been happy to see slavery die out over the course of a century or longer.

Thus had he been uncompromising and ideologically consistent to the last, I wonder how we would remember Abraham Lincoln today. He certainly would not be the “Great Emancipator,” and likely would have overseen the destruction of the Union rather than been its savior.

On the last part of our final exam I had students write a “self-reflective” essay in which they considered whether there was anything in Lincoln’s life they found “usable” in their own. The result was interesting, as students remarked on things as varied as Lincoln’s rags-to-riches background, his grief and depression, his leadership qualities, and the value of using simple and relatable language when addressing complex ideas and concepts. Happily, none agreed with labeling Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” but most clearly demonstrated they understood the essential and crucial role he played in the complicated process and pace of emancipation.

And thus I consider the class to have been a great success, and I hope I’ll I continue to be able to teach it.  I learned some valuable things right along with my students, growing and improving as an educator and in my open-mindedness.

Thanks for the lesson, Mr. President.

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Visiting Richmond’s New American Civil War Museum

 

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Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.

But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that.  Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.

Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.

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The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.

Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.

It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.

Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.

The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.

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Tad & his dad in Richmond

Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.

And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.

Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).

So, does the museum live up to the high expectations and hype?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.

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Just inside the front doors.

First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.

Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.

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Gallery entrance.

Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.

Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

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Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

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Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)

Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs.  You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.

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This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.

Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.

And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example).  Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.

How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”

And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.

And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.

Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.

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Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.

 

On NPS Visitation & that Wall Street Journal article

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So, two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story on National Park Service visitation at Civil War battlefield sites. As you may know, I was a long-time seasonal ranger for the NPS, and my “former” status means I can talk freely with the press—something that current rangers can’t readily do.

Anyway, the premise of the article, as presented to me, was that in light of declining numbers, what should/could the NPS do to generate more interest in the parks?

During the phone interview, I gave the reporter a little bit of background, explaining that park visitation has spikes and subsequent declines, usually associated with cultural and pop-cultural events—the centennial celebrations in the early 60s, the popularity of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in the 80s, and the release of movies like 1989’s Glory and 1993’s Gettysburg, for examples.

Unfortunately, those spikes came at a time when the park service was still a bit stuck in the rut of “who shot who, and where” interpretation. Further, I theorized that because most of the Civil War parks are in the South, a lot of that surge was from southern whites.

Sadly, for varied and complex reasons, African Americans have been rare visitors to the park battlefield sites, I told the reporter,  not the least of which is because of the legacy of Jim Crow, as public parks in the South have not exactly been seen as welcoming to blacks. That problem persists—-if your parents didn’t take you to the parks, you’re not very likely to take your own kids.

gen-stonewall-jackson-1a.jpgAfrican Americans have also been largely excluded from the narratives told at these sites as well. When they did show up, they faced monuments making the defenders of slavery look like superheroes.

So, I theorized, the “base” (though far from all) of the visitation surges has been white southerners looking to the parks for narratives about where their ancestors fought and where they did sacrificial and glorious deeds.

However, since about the mid 90s, I told the reporter, the NPS has made efforts to broaden the narratives at the parks, telling more inclusive stories and focusing on more than just old school military history. Social, cultural, and political history has slowly but surely begun to be reflected in NPS interpretation, telling richer and more diverse stories that shed light on the war’s causes, contingencies, and enduring legacies. We’re just now reaching a flowering of this at NPS sites, but there’s still a long way to go, especially at those sites down here in the deep south.

The downside, however, is that these changes have been off-putting to many in that “base” of white southerners, who don’t want to come to the parks and be exposed to what they see as the national government’s (the winners) version of the story.

It is uncomfortable and upsetting to them to be told and/or reminded that great, great, grandpa fought for a government founded for the direct purpose of preserving slavery, or that the post-war activities of their ancestors tended to celebrate and rewrite the Confederacy’s struggle and purpose, as a means of recreating and perpetuating slavery and racial barriers in other forms.

8185141_g.jpg“No!” They insist, “States Rights! Heritage, not hate!”

That, I told the reporter, probably helps to explain (to at least some degree) why the numbers are currently down at NPS sites after the surge in the 80s and early 90s. These people are more comfortable visiting privately or locally owned Antebellum homes and sites that tell the story they want to hear—or just staying away from history sites altogether. The current debate over Confederate symbols has only exacerbated this dynamic.

I’ve seen proof of this in two ways recently. While visiting a locally funded battlefield site in North Carolina, I encountered a visitor’s center staffed by a man spewing the Lost Cause, chapter and verse, and criticizing those parks funded by state and federal money “because they want to make everything about slavery.” Secondly, just yesterday I saw a Facebook post in response to the Wall Street Journal article in which the writer declared he’d stopped going to parks “because the liberal academics have re-written the story.” Others shared similar sentiments, but with more vitriol.

So then, what is the solution? Should the parks abandon their new emphasis on telling more honest and inclusive history in order to get this base back to the parks? Heaven forbid!

Instead, I speculated to the reporter, the focus needs to be on broadening the base of people that come to the Civil War battlefield parks. Youth programs need more support and emphasis. The use of technology to enhance the visitor experience must continue to expand (new and high tech museums and apps, etc). Park interpreters must hone their skills and energetically look at different techniques for presenting more engaging tours.  Social media must continue to be utilized (and perhaps traditional advertising) to demonstrate the expanding focus of the parks’ interpretations.

And, I told the reporter, we need NEW monuments and memorials on the battlefields and elsewhere, that celebrate and honor the efforts of the extremely diverse cast of characters that shaped the war and its consequences.

Further, I speculated that we might be on the verge of another surge in visitation caused by pop-culture, as Spielberg and Dicaprio have a movie in the works about U.S. Grant, and other projects are coming (long overdue) that focus on Harriet Tubman and Robert SmallsTubmanMarkerPlantation_54_990x660.jpgThat so many history-related movies have done so well lately, is an indication to me that people are still fascinated and hungry to know more about the past. 

I concluded the interview with a very optimistic tone about the future of the parks, pointing out that I was at that moment sitting at an Antebellum site here in Tuscaloosa (not NPS) where there was an older white gentleman roaming around, but also several kids and two African American women, all of which were reading the interpretive signs.

Almost none of that made it into the article. I asked the reporter who else he’d interviewed, and he indicated he’d spoken with Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Knowing Pete well (we worked together long ago as seasonal rangers), I said “Oh! I bet he gave you some good stuff.” To which the reporter responded, “well, yeah sort of. He is also optimistic like you about the new technology.”

Pete’s interview didn’t even make it into the article.

I’m not sure why the reporter was focused on such a pessimistic assessment, but as a result the piece has gotten a lot of attention and spawned others with cynical tones, like this one, or this one from the right-wing The Federalist, both of which tie the problem to a decline in the teaching of history in public schools (an assertion that is debatable itself.)

There has also been some pushback from NPS folks. John Hennessy, National Park Service historian, for example, has done a great job on his Facebook page of challenging the very premise that the park’s numbers are down. (And personally, I think if the number of reenactments and reenactors are on the decline, that’s a good thing. But my thoughts on that are a whole other discussion). The awesome folks at Civil War Trails also assure us that “the known and recent stats are encouraging.”

I think we would be better served by articles from such high profile platforms like the Wall Street Journal focusing on the great strides the Park Service has taken and continues to take in broadening the stories they tell. A recent trip I took out to City Point, Virginia (Grant’s Headquarters during the last phase of the war), for example,  focused on the plantation there, its forms of slave resistance, and the very complex master/slave relationship there. Further, a recent trip out to South Carolina’s Fort Moutrie NPS site led to an encounter with this amazing interpretive sign:

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Man, I love this interpretation, especially that it concludes on an positive note (the sign is not NPS, but it is on NPS land). The NPS visitor’s center there also included displays on the Middle Passage.

So instead of throwing dirt on the grave of NPS Civil War Battlefield sites and pondering their demise, let’s focus on the transitional phase they are in now and support and champion the fantastic historians and curators they employ that are getting the story right, (especially because they often receive blowback from visitors that resent it).

Let’s also highly resolve to dedicate ourselves to helping the NPS spread the word about their mission in a way that broadens the demographics of their visitation, getting those numbers surging again. Shall we?

An historian’s review of The Highwaymen: “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

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The line of dialogue used above in my title is from Netflix’s new original film, The Highwaymen, and says much about the corrective the film gives us about the two infamous outlaws, Bonnie & Clyde.

Disclaimer: I’m certainly not an expert on Bonnie & Clyde. Yet besides baseball history and film history, true crime was one of the first things I dabbled in when I was a kid just falling in love with history, and I remain a frequent reader of those topics today (antebellum and Civil War America are my fields of specialty). So while I have done no original research on Bonnie and Clyde, over the years I’ve taught about them, and especially their era, in my US history courses. As a cinema history buff, I also understand their place in film history.

I first saw the Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde on VHS as a teenager, and it immediately bothered me, even though I appreciated it as an excellent film. Without knowing anything about the true facts, I recognized who the real bad guys were.

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Dunaway and Beatty as the glamorized Bonnie and Clyde

Sure, it was made during the antihero, counterculture, stick-it-to-the man late 1960s (and spawned a new generation of director-as-auteur films and anti-establishment movies), but I saw it as a young teen in the conservative 80s and was as curious about the cops that hunted down the murderous duo as I was Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s sexy and charismatic depictions of the title characters.

When I did a little reading, I was angered by the depiction of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a  legendary law enforcer well before he tracked down Bonnie & Clyde. Played by Denver Pyle (soon to be Uncle Jesse on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard), the film portrays him (in completely invented scenes) as a petty man who engineers the duo’s deaths mainly out of spiteful vengeance because they publicly made him look like a bumbling idiot and fool.

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Pyle’s Hamer, ridiculed by the duo in a totally fabricated scene

He’s clearly the film’s bad guy, as the free-wheeling, deeply in love couple go on an exciting crime spree, staying one step ahead of the law, entertaining themselves and a country in the throes of the depression, before meeting a tragic Shakespearean-like ending.

This romanticized take on Bonnie & Clyde endures, a product of the film’s cultural power. Even a recent PBS documentary that tried to set the record straight relied on commentators that were clearly admirers of the outlaws and/or related to them. The effort to de-romanticize the couple was mainly an acknowledgement that their life on the run, living out of stolen cars and one step ahead of the law, was exhausting. Awww, poor things!  More recent, NBC’s Timeless did paint them as killers and Hamer as “a good man,” but dwelled mostly on how much in love the couple were, causing the show’s heroes to realize their own affection for each other. Aww, how sweet.

I’m certainly not the only one annoyed by the 1967 film’s impact. Frank Hamer’s family sued the movie’s producers in 1968, winning a hefty settlement, but the damage was done.  Legendary actor Robert Duvall (one of my all-time favs) has always made no secret of his disdain for the film, openly criticizing the acting as being over-the-top, but especially its treatment of Hamer and the Texas Rangers. And John Fusco, one of the producers and writer of this new movie, hated Bonnie and Clyde too.

Approaching Hamer Jr. for help and his blessing in making a corrective film, Fusco found the legendary lawmen’s son understandably leery of Hollywood, expressing outright hatred for Warren Beatty’s role in slandering his father, and he labeled the famous criminals “two pint-sized punks who weren’t worth the caps that were busted on them.”  Fusco was able to win Hamer Jr.’s cooperation, however, when convincing the lawman’s son that he agreed with those sentiments.

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The real Gault (above) and Hamer

The result was a script about Hamer and his ranger partner Maney Gault, garnering interest from Robert Redford and Paul Newman (wow, what a movie that would have made).

Unfortunately the project got tied up in Hollywood limbo, until now, with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas rangers that hunted and gunned down the pint sized punks. They’re no Redford and Newman, but they’re dang good replacements.

Unlike some historians, I am just fine when a film takes certain liberties with the facts if it serves a greater truth. For a tight two hour movie, events have to be contracted, some people and their actions have to be condensed into composite characters, action scenes have to be heightened. Further, dialogue has to be invented that gives background and fleshes out characters and thus sometimes has them speaking in ways they may not have actually spoken.

These things all-too-often annoy nit-picky historians that do not understand the craft and needs of the filmmaker, especially when it steps into their field of specialty. But if these liberties are done in a way that paints an overall picture and interpretation that is accurate (sadly not the case with the 1967 classic), I’m just fine with it.

This is definitely the case with The Highwaymen, as it sometimes plays fast and loose with the specifics, and yet does so in ways revealing historically accurate generalizations.  A perfect example is a scene in which our heroes (the rangers!) encounter their prey, fail to catch them because a crowd of the killers’ fans and admirers get in the way, resulting in a car chase.  Clyde then does some slick driving in a dusty open field that loses Hamer and Gault. This simply didn’t happen.

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The real Clyde Barrow posing with his car of choice, a Ford V-8

But the invented scene reveals historical truth: Bonnie and Clyde were cultural heroes to many at the time, he was damn good behind the wheel of a V-8 Ford, specialized in alluding the police, and often covered hundreds of miles in doing so.

Other liberties are taken. Maney Gault didn’t join Hamer until the later days of the chase, for example, but his presence throughout the film helps flesh out Hamer’s past and devotion to justice, and essentially becomes his inner conscience. While Hamer was chasing them, the Barrow Gang had two separate events in which they killed law enforcers. The details of the first one, the killing of two motorcycle cops in what are known as the “Grapevine” murders, are taken from eyewitness testimony that has been questioned. The second murder is fudged because the details are quicker to depict than the actual details would have been. Some scenes are complete inventions, but serve the purpose of showing the support the killers had from family, friends, and admirers, and the lengths to which law enforcement was willing to go in order to bag them.

But these liberties create a movie with a steady narrative flow, character development and drama, and yet still gives the audience a needed and accurate historical corrective. Bonnie and Clyde were bad people, committing hundreds of robberies (both large and petty) across many states and murdering 13 people (or possibly more), 9 of which were law enforcers.

In depression-era America they were viewed as modern-day Robin Hoods. But they definitely weren’t, as small-time mom-and-pop stores and isolated gas stations were their favorite targets, not the hated banks of the Great Depression, and they were not handing out to the poor.

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The most famous picture of these two sociopaths

The killers were extremely heavily armed (with military grade weapons like a BAR), making them a serious danger to even an experienced manhunter and killer like Hamer. Yet despite the help they got from family, friends, and admirers, Hamer chased them down using old fashioned methods, cutting deals, and setting up an ambush on an isolated rural backroad near Gibsland, Louisiana that brutally ended their sinful ways.

And he did so because of a devotion to the law and his anger that cop killers were being treated as heroes. These historically accurate broad truths are ably revealed in The Highwaymen.

Look, the film is no masterpiece, but the performances from the two famous leads carry it along nicely and give it punch. It isn’t the sexy and freewheeling 1967 film. Rather, it is appropriately dark and gritty. The Great Depression setting provides accurate and interesting visuals and the story is nicely situated within the era.

Admittedly, there is some weak dialogue (but some that is excellent), and one or two scenes feature moments that way too conveniently serve the narrative. This is not a complex film, although it surprisingly dwells on the psychological consequences of killing (even in the name of justice) in ways that most action films do not, featuring some good contemplative dialogue. In the end, it is an enjoyable, old fashioned movie, where the good and bad guys are clearly distinguished.

****Warning, spoilers ahead as I further address the film’s accuracy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to jump now to the last two paragraphs****

Bonnie Parker is definitely depicted as one of the bad ones, and I can tell you now that many Bonnie and Clyde buffs/amateur historians are going to be miffed about it.

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She was clowning around in this pic, but make no mistake, this is no heroine

In The Highwaymen, she is just as involved in the shootings as Clyde, providing covering fire in shootouts and brutally offing a motorcycle cop as he lay disabled on the ground.

These facts are disputed, and many of her sympathizers point to the fact that under oath gang members absolved her of killings. Yet eyewitness testimony does exist that she did fire at law enforcement. Further, the “Grapevine killing” scene (the killing of two motorcycle cops that had stumbled upon the gang and thought they were stranded motorists) is based on the testimony of one witness that was the closest to the murders of several other witnesses, a farmer that claimed Bonnie delivered the coup de grace to one of the officers. Gaining his 15 minutes of fame, the farmer told his story over and over, even for newsreels, and some claim his details changed over time. This has led many to discredit his testimony,  embracing instead that of a married couple that were farther away with an obscured view and that said Bonnie didn’t shoot.

We’ll likely never know the truth for sure, but I am fine with the film going with the original witness, because people at the time believed it, Hamer believed it, the ballistics on the scene supports it, and it led to more public support for downing the duo. The scene therefore serves the greater purpose of painting Bonnie as equally guilty. Heck, even she didn’t try to deny it: shortly after the grapevine killings the gang killed another cop (depicted in the film) and shot and kidnapped yet another (left vague in the film) letting him go with Bonnie’s only request being that he tell the press (that had pinned her with one of the Grapevine killings) that she didn’t smoke cigars! Apparently, she felt that was more damaging to her public image than was being a cop killer.

But whether she pulled the trigger or not, make no mistake, Bonnie Parker was going along with hundreds of robberies, and running with and abetting (and bedding) a repeated murderer. She doesn’t deserve our sympathy, and by depicting her popping off the policemen, the movie makes that truth clear and palpable.

The other aspect of the film that requires the most scrutiny regarding accuracy is the set-up and carrying out of the famous last ambush. The six members of the posse (led by Hamer and including Gault, 2 Dallas deputies, and 2 local Louisiana officers) all told different stories.

How was it set up? The movie’s story is that Hamer and Gault predicted (based on the gang’s established pattern of going to a member’s home after each spree) that the killers would show up at the Louisiana home of the father of one of Clyde’s gang members, Henry Methvin.

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Woody and Costner in pursuit

Methvin’s father was then pressured to help set up the ambush if his son was spared the death penalty (and possibly all charges) in Texas (other states’s charges would still be in place). The ambush was then arranged as soon as Henry could slip free from the couple, as the group had an agreement that if they got separated they would meet up at (or possibly nearby) the Methvin place near Gibsland, Louisiana.

Is that actually how the deal went down?  It is possible that Methvin’s father made the initial contact with law enforcement, not the other way around. Further, was he a willing participant, as in the 1967 movie, or a reluctant or even forced one? Or might he not even been involved at all?  We will likely never know the exact details because Hamer was intent on keeping his methods secret, covering up details as much as possible and protecting sources.

Which is also the case with the ambush. In my mind, the big question is how the posse managed to get Barrow to slow down or even stop, as he normally pushed his stolen V-8 Fords on back country roads at top speeds. The generally accepted version is that they used Methvin’s father’s truck to slow Clyde down, placing it in the road as though it were broken down. But was the father also willingly out in the road as a decoy by his truck?

In the 1970s, one posse member claimed Methvin’s father was never a willing participant in the deal and that Hamer handcuffed him to a tree on the side of the road and then used his truck as the decoy. In the 1967 film version, he is a willing participant, but The Highwaymen plausibly splits the difference, having the father agree to the deal, but depicting Hamer as not trusting that he wouldn’t warn the killers, and thus forcing the father to be there with them on the side of the road (but as a decoy, not shackled to a tree).

After the car slowed or stopped, were Bonnie and Clyde offered a chance to put their hands up? All six guys told different stories. Why?  Some argue that the three groups distrusted and disliked each other, so they all told self -serving stories. Perhaps the differences were just a product of the natural phenomenon that different people will often see the same event in different ways, particularly if it was fast and violent. Personally,  I think it is a product of both those things, but also that Hamer swore them all to secrecy about what actually happened, because it is very likely the first shot was fired prematurely, without warning, before the killers even made a move.

Again, we will never know for sure what actually happened that morning, but the film depicts (in a scene filmed on the actual site of the real ambush) that a warning was given.

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The ambush site today. The film was shot here, though it required covering the road with dirt and bringing in foliage so that the woods appear closer to the road, as they were then.

Hamer himself delivers the demand of “hands up,” coming out into the road (VERY unlikely), followed by a few breathless moments of fear on both sides. Bonnie then makes a move for her weapon, leading to the excessively lethal barrage.

Yet once again, I am OK with this depiction, because the brief pause gives us the film’s first close-up of Bonnie and Clyde’s faces. Before that moment, we only see them briefly and usually from a distance (something some commentators have criticized). Yet the beauty of this decision is that once we see Hamer and Gault’s prey for the first time up close, we realize, as the two rangers must have, that these monsters were essentially just kids that went down a very wrong path, paying an appropriately heavy price for it.

(And yes, the scenes involving crazed souvenir hunters is accurate, with the reality being even more insane than is depicted).

Thus the film’s ending is shocking and somber, just as was the ending of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. But where that film wants us to feel sad for the tragic couple and angered by the brutal trap that was set from them, The Highwayman simply wants us to feel the tragedy of violence.

The ending is appropriately not rousing and triumphant, as our heroes literally ride off into the sunset. The jolting and somber finale makes the film’s point, as Bonnie and Clyde clearly understood, that those that live by the sword will die by the sword, and that the wages of sin are death.

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Actual photograph from moments after the slaughter

“They Shall Not Grow Old”—See it, Seriously. Just Do It.

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Today my mind is on the movies (as it frequently is). Did you notice that six out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture are based on history? (Roma, The Favourite, “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Vice,” and “Green Book.”) No one will ever be able to convince me that people are not interested in history, but think about the diversity in those films: Powerful white guys in the White House; A Mexican female housekeeper in the 70s; A gay rock star; A black jazz pianist and his white bodyguard traveling in the segregated south; Two female cousins vying for the affection of Queen Anne in the early 1700s; A black police detective that infiltrates the 1970s Klu Klux Klan.

That’s an impressive array of historical diversity.  Don’t forget I reviewed BlacKkKlansman back in the summer.  I don’t think it is the favorite to win, but it is also up for 5 total awards (including director for Spike Lee and supporting actor for Adam Driver). It is a powerful film.

But the movie I’m posting about today is the WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from Peter Jackson. It may have came and went from your local theater without you ever realizing it, as it was presented in December and mid-January as a Fathom Event (which puts limited-run programs into theaters, such as classic Hollywood movies, concerts, operas, and Broadway musicals). It broke records during its first two-day run, so they brought it back for two more in January (which is when I caught it).

Thankfully, both appearances of the documentary did so well that they’ve decided to open it up on February 1st in 500 theaters in 150 markets. I can’t encourage you enough to see it if it comes to a theater near you (and if not, consider a road trip) . Rearrange your schedule if you have to, but DO NOT MISS IT.

It uses the Imperial War Museum’s collection of WWI footage, along with interviews with veterans that were done by the BBC in the 1960s. There are no historians or a narrator, just the vets themselves, telling the story of their experiences; training, arriving and living on the Western Front, going over the top, dying or arriving at the hospital, and then going home. There is no thesis or agenda apart from hearing and seeing the British soldiers themselves.

What makes it so spectacular, however, is what Jackson has done with the film footage and the sound. I really don’t want to tell you much because, honestly, it really is just too difficult to explain the power of this film until you see it for yourself.

It is deceptively simple just to tell you that he corrected the original speeds of the footage, colorized it, put it into 3D, and added a meticulously accurate soundtrack (so much so that they had lip readers decipher what the soldiers were saying, then hired voice actors from the same geographic regions as the soldiers on screen so that the accents would be accurate). But really, that just doesn’t even come close to explaining the experience of seeing what Jackson has done with this footage. (Stick around after the credits for Jackson’s explanation of how it was all done).

Do not wait to see this at home on DVD or Blu Ray. The big screen and the 3D are key to its visual power (and I tend to loathe 3D). Those things will be lost at home, no matter how big your screen is.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie saves its punch for when the troops arrive in the trenches. At that point, Jackson pulls you into the trenches in a way that is stupefying and mesmerizing.

Again, it really can’t be described. Just see it. It is nothing short of perhaps the most visually stunning experience I have ever had in a movie theater.

Seriously.

In the end, however, what you will be struck with the most is the way that Jackson uses the faces of the soldiers to tell their story. The images that are most imbedded in my brain are of men just minutes away from going “over-the-top” to what was certain death. You can see in their faces that they know it is their last moments on earth, and they are scared to death.

No movie or documentary has ever presented the true face of war as stunningly as They Shall Not Grow Old. We are looking at men about to die on the Western Front, but they just as easily could be men moments from dying in any war.

Jackson has truly captured the face of battle.

When it was over, I couldn’t help but feel the film is perhaps as powerful to look at in our times as it was for 1862 New York audiences to have seen Matthew Brady’s “Dead of Antietam” for the first time.

You know that famous quote from a New York Times reviewer: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Well, that’s pretty much what Jackson has done.

Let me say it one last time as emphatically as I can:

DO NOT MISS THE FILM IN THE THEATER AND IN 3D.

Just trust me.

Trump, evangelical Christians, and a history of fear: A review of John Fea’s Believe Me.

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. 994854356-1.jpgMy last blog posting was over two months ago.

I could blame vacation and general burnout, but the primary reason for my lack of blogging is that the #1 thing I would want to post about are the never-ending Trump outrages. And yet I find myself not wanting to write about Trump for one reason:

I am tired of hating him.

As my closest friends know, I have been grappling with the fact that Trump inspires so much sheer hatred in my heart. As I watch him destroy the dignity of the office, repeatedly lie about big and small things, separate families at the border, enact tariffs which will inflict wounds on our own economy, weaken the alliances that the post-WWII Western world has been built upon, describe the free press as an enemy of the state, and coddle up to murdering and tyrannical madmen, (just to name his most recent misdeeds), the anger in me swells. And every day it’s something new.

1*JRxEPJZ6EjasBIDh9GkPSw.pngIt’s exhausting, and I know that many of you feel exactly the same.

My Twitter followers and Facebook friends know I frequently vent my feelings in short diatribe postings, or by passing along news stories and the writings of others. But this has long become annoying to me, and I’m sure to others. Oh, how I long for the days when my Twitter feed and Facebook wall were filled mostly with interesting history-related stories, the good news of family and friends, sports commentary, or jokes and fun comments about pop culture.

Those are still there, of course, but are clouded and overwhelmed by the ever-frustrating and increasingly-frightening news. Living through world changing events in real time is fascinating as heck, but the fear and hatred it stirs has become oppressive.

And what good is all that fear and hate?

I’m a big believer that nothing good ever comes from hate. As MLK wrote (perhaps leaning on Romans 12:21), “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Perhaps Maya Angelo said  it best:  “Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Indeed, has it not been hatred and fear that has caused this current problem? As we know, Trump’s narrow election victory owes much to the fact that he received the support of 81% of evangelical Christians. It seems ironic that perhaps the most immoral man ever nominated for president received evangelical support.

But is it? And was it not their fear and hatred that helped make his victory possible?

That argument is at the core of historian and Messiah College Professor John Fea’s new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump5101e574-4c2f-4e5a-8b90-5366b66f02f1._CR63,0,375,500_PT0_SX300__.jpgPurposely choosing a publisher of religious books (Eardman’s), the Christian author’s main target audience seems to be other evangelicals. Yet anyone interested in understanding the 2016 election through solid historical context and analysis should pick up Fea’s fascinating and incisive work.

(Quick shoutout to the small independent bookstore where I picked up my copy,  Ernest & Hadley’s. Shop local, y’all.)

Like Fea, I too was dismayed that a large majority of fellow Christians embraced such an immoral man like Donald Trump, especially when considering that these were the same people that excoriated Bill Clinton, insisting that beyond his perjury, his sexual improprieties and other character flaws made him unfit for office. What happened? If character mattered then (and I believe that it did), why did it not seem to matter now?

Further, I wondered, how could evangelicals be blind to the fact that embracing Trump would only widen the conception of Christians as hypocrites? Couldn’t they see that the goal of spreading the good news would be severely hampered? Who would want to convert to a religion of such blatant hypocrisy?

Instead of letting such questions bewilder and anger him, Fea went looking for answers, and has reached what I feel are convincing explanations. Simply put, Trump tapped into the long standing evangelical tradition of using fear as a tactic, embraced their political playbook for recreating a nostalgic American past that never really existed, and rallied their leaders to his cause by seemingly offering positions of political power and influence. Fea concludes that many evangelicals “decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage their Christian witness will suffer because of their association” with him.

Fea builds his case by providing a “short history of evangelical fear,” touching on Puritan Massachusetts, anti-Catholicism in colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum America, the fear of deism in the early republic, southern fears about race war and/or miscegenation that drove them into secession, the Nativist response to Jewish and Catholic immigrants, images.jpegand the modernist cultural forces of the 1920s that brought about the revival of the KKK and lynchings (and a war on the teaching of evolution).

Thus by the time of the Civil Rights movement, Fea demonstrates, evangelicals had a long history of revealing their fears in how they “responded to the plight of people who do not share their skin color,” as well as how they responded to anyone that “might challenge the power and privilege that evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants . . ..” And those responses “have led to some dark moments” in the history of the United States.

Indeed.

After WWII, Fea narrates, evangelicals were dismayed by “a renewed emphasis on the separation of church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible-reading from public schools, the influx of immigrants from non-Christian Western nations, the intrusion of the federal government into their schools (desegregation), and the court’s endorsement of abortion on demand.”

As a result, the 1970s saw evangelicals turn against the forces of big government, making them a natural fit for the more than welcoming (and wooing) Republican Party. (Fea doesn’t point it out, but he reveals there was more at play here than just the infamous “southern strategy” that was based on blowing racial dog whistles).

Furthermore, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” developed what Fea labels a “political playbook” in order to defeat the forces that seemed to be winning the cultural wars. mf1000.jpgSimply put, this playbook encouraged Christians to restore America to its Christian roots (which required historic revisionism to argue that America was founded solely by Christians, upon Christian principles) by contending for political power via the recruitment and financial support of candidates dedicated to using government to achieve the church’s religious goals.

Christians in political office would then place Christians in the courts, and these judges would limit the separation between church and state (which would allow the passage of laws enforcing Christian morality), and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. “While control of the presidency and the Congress is certainly important to the successful implementation of this playbook,” Fea argues, “the control of the Supreme Court is essential.”

And yet, despite forty years of following this playbook, by 2015 it had had little if any success. Abortion was still legal. The internet had made pornography more widely and easily available. Gay marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court. Crime rates seemed to have not dropped. America was becoming more ethnically and racial diverse than ever.  Some states had legalized the recreational use of pot. Christian church membership was dropping substantially. A man many Christians (ridiculously) believed was a foreign-born Muslim had been twice-elected president. Etc. etc.

And then came Trump. Despite his life-long commitment to greed, sexual infidelity and immorality, shady business practices, and outspoken crudeness, he quickly understood his best path to the White House must involve picking up the evangelical vote. Drawing to his side what Fea labels the “court evangelicals,” Trump learned from certain Christian leaders how to speak the language and embrace the playbook. These leaders saw a man that would not just give lip-service to the playbook, but would faithfully implement it and place them into positions of political power and influence.

These court evangelicals include the Christian Right (such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr.), the followers of “prosperity gospel,” (such as Paula White), and the Independent Network Charismatics (some of which insist they prophesied Trump’s victory and his role in their ultimate success). Donald-trump.jpgWooed by Trump’s apparent commitment to the playbook, these evangelicals have become his staunchest defenders, insisting his past does not matter, that he is a faithful Christian now (despite all evidence to the contrary), and even that he is the fulfillment of prophesy.

Fea’s work is thus powerfully enlightening, helping to explain why a man with Trump’s deficiencies would find favor with Christian evangelicals. Though he does not explore it, his work also explains why these long-time Republican faithfuls would embrace a man that campaigned on and has embraced so many anti-Republican Party policies (such as his hostile tariffs and questionable commitment to our traditional alliances and NATO responsibilities).

Further, Fea’s work helps explain why, despite Stormy Daniels and Trump’s continued deplorable behavior (such as his easily demonstrable lies and disgusting moral equivalencies), evangelicals refuse to abandon him. With Trump appointees taking judgeships, and with one on the Supreme Court and more possibly coming, why should they quit on him now when their playbook finally seems on the verge of success?

In his later chapters, Fea begins to more directly address his message to fellow evangelical Christians. Taking aim at the slogan “Make American Great Again,” the author rightfully asserts that there is no time in America’s history when things were “great” for a majority of U.S. citizens, and that our past is more often filled with dark and dangerous times for people that were not white male native-born (and heterosexual) Protestants.  Trump thus relies on nostalgia for a time that never really existed.

For most Americans, the evangelical playbook’s success would be regressive, not a restoration of greatness. (For those of you that have been watching Hulu’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, how frightening does all this seem??) “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” Fea asserts, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for–not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

On abortion, Fea argues that even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, the issue would go to the states, where certainly a large number would keep it legal. That impoverished red state women might not be able to afford travel to blue states would likely reduce the number of abortions, “but it will bring our culture no closer to welcoming the children who are born and supporting their mothers.” How much more could have already been done in America to end abortions, Fea ponders, had the billions of dollars given to pro-life candidates been spent on more economic, social, and cultural solutions to the problem, rather than political ones. Now there’s food for thought.

In his conclusion to Believe Me, Fea finds inspiration in the Christian leaders of the Civil Rights movement,mbb1-1.jpg
encouraging evangelicals to end their faith in the playbook, stop relying on the politics of fear and embrace a message of hope, be inspired by true history and not a nostalgic version of it, and seek to shape American culture through more humble and less political means (you know, like Christ).

“Too many [evangelical] leaders (and their followers) have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges,” Fea concludes, arguing that we should thus not be surprised by the number of people leaving the Christian church altogether.

Believe Me is powerful stuff, made all the more so by Fea’s readably jargon-free prose, confident authorial voice, and gently encouraging tone. I have some quibbles with it: I would have liked an organization that maintained a more chronological flow, racial dynamics needed a bit more emphasis, and his conclusions seemingly disregards the political agenda of the Civil Rights movement. Fox News and political tribalism needed to be in there somewhere, too.

I think his conclusion also misses the opportunity to point out that African American Christianity has almost always centered on a message of hope for future justice, helping blacks endure bleak times in America. That’s a powerful contrast to Fea’s outlining of the white evangelical history of using fear.slavery-2.jpg

I’ve long awaited Fea’s book, and it did not disappoint. If you have read much of my blog, you know that I often express my belief in the view of history that embraces the idea that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. These times that we are living in however, are a great reminder that it is our responsibility to keep it bent in the right direction. American history has always shown that this involves fighting against powerful forces, so we should not be surprised by what we are up against now, as unprecedented as many of these events are.

I see much to be excited about, as perhaps the Trump backlash is helping to end political apathy in America. And yet, as I acknowledged above, the unrelentingly disturbing and frightening news has been weighing me down with hatred.

Fea’s book has thus come at just the right time for my soul, demonstrating that fear and hatred are what have given us Trump’s America. So, as he concludes, it must be resisted with humility and hopeful determination that looks forward and not back. The resistance can’t be driven by negativity and fear.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Damn right.

 

 

The Beguiled (1971) vs. The Beguiled (2017). Which one is really a Civil War movie? Which one is better?

 

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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled, 2017 (left), and Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, 1971 (right).

Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.

Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.

The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple:  During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.

Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing.  As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story.  There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.

Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.

Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).

Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs,  floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).

On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.

Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid,  featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.

Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs.  Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.

And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops,  expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.

(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).

In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge.  The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.

That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.

In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.

Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.

***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.

And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.

The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.

In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary.  In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.

True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women.  However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).

Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him.  Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.

Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.

It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of  dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.

Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.

(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).

Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).

Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.

(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)

See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).

Visiting Lizzie Borden (and getting creeped out).

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The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down

A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother.  The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life.  It is a good short read, so check it out.

You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).

The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”

I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979.  I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.

Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell).  Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.

I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour.  Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.

I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.

We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us).  I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with.  (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.

(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)

The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it.  So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.

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Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.

We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe.  The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.

Freaky. Get me out of here!

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Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed

The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.

Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

But come on, she did it.

(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).

Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.

Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.

Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.

The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.

But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)

If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.